Friday, January 19, 2007

apocalyptic sublimity [II]

The place where they lay, it has a name - it has none
- Paul Celan

The previous installment ended with this by Jodi Dean:

Apocalypto imagines past apocalypse--not future. And, Children of Men imagines present apocalypse…. I came away overwhelmed by a cliche (which says nothing about the movie per se, in other words, don't blame the movie)--if Guantanamo is in the world, then all the world is Guantanamo. Although this is a cliche, it may apply more than we think…. the 'solution' of containment zones for troublemakers just seems obvious...

Are we living in macro-micro containment zones as pictured in Children? Consider some evidence in America as posted by Latina Lista on the holding facilities in texas for illegal immigrants. Also consider this alarming story by Subtopia on the booming business of border fences across the globe.

It seems almost every month there emerges from some border ‘zone’ a proposal to build a new fence. One might think the border fence is as popular to the construction industry today as the global skyscraper, the suburban tract home, or the gated community. In fact, who is to say they are not somewhat at least symbolically interconnected. Anyhow, this month it is Pakistan who announced “a new solution to the problem on its western frontier.” That is, according to this report: “mines and fences along the Afghan border, designed to keep militants from crossing in and out of the tribal zone.”
(The post goes onto link many previous posts on borders – well worth clicking)
Then there is this project - Zone*Interdite by Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud
as noted by Outside the Ivory Tower blog.

Since early 2000 the two Swiss citizens have been collecting data on military exclusion zones and presenting a compilation of the data on the website The platform is linked up with a Google search function, meaning that information available via Google can be called up for the now circa 2.000 entries with just one mouse-click – a function that is as low-key as it is stunning, for it offers visitors to the site effortless direct access to a plethora of information and images about the individual zones, although the military obligation to kept restricted data confidential dictates that the general public should be kept in the dark as much as possible and certainly should not be told the truth via images.

If you go to the artist’s site : Zone Interdite - you can visit Camp Delta at Guantanamo, Coleman Barracks – Germany, an Islamic training camp – Sudan, and Bagram Airbase – Afghanistan. It’s a very interesting project and well defined in its aims at connecting/mapping the power apparatus - rather the complex phenomena of perception triggered by prohibiting such perception.

These micro- geographies, fragmented place/zones are starting to proliferate globally which seems to declare an entropy - a passage out of the traditional nation-state structure into something more reductive, barbarous and splintered. So to repeat Dean, if apocalypticism is present, does that mean that the world hasn't already ended?And what of "other worlds? It is precisely because other worlds have been that there remains a glimmer of hope for other worlds to come. David Graeber has suggested something similar in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. He asks:
What sort of social theory would actually be of interest to those who are trying to help bring about a world in which people are free to govern their own affairs?
- it would have to proceed from the assumption that another world is possible.
That institutions like the state, capitalism, racism and male dominance are not inevitable; that it would be possible to have a world in which these things would not exist, and that we'd all be better off as a result. To commit oneself to such a principle is almost an act of faith, since how can one have certain knowledge of such matters? It might possibly turn out that such a world is
not possible. But one could also say that it's this very unavailability of absolute knowledge which makes a commitment to optimism a moral imperative: Since one cannot know a radically better world is not possible, are we not betraying everyone by insisting on continuing to justify, and reproduce, the mess we have today?

As Dean pointed out, Zizek takes a somewhat similiar commentary as he suggests that our political duty today is to keep these past traces alive, to recall past aspirations. This reminds me of Morris Berman’s assertion of the need for a new monastaticism to protect the best of Enlightment values and the pursuit empirical knowledge as a bunker against the decline in law and education and the increased reliance on "special" knowledge to explain the world - ie. ancient religious texts. * Zizek on Children of Men link.

The conversation on 'the end' takes a slight turn with a psycho-analytic musing on our new sense of apocalypse - Larval Subjects blog summons Freud to testify.

Apocalypse Now Redacted
The question revolves around the issue of whether or not the damage to the world is irrevocable and whether another world is possible (i.e., whether there's a limit to capitalism or an alternative to capitalism). Rather than directly taking a stand on these questions, I would instead like to approach the issue psychoanalytically from the standpoint of collective fantasies.
One of the things I began noticing a few years ago is that I was encountering patients whose sexual and amorous fantasy life was deeply bound up with visions of apocalypse or the destruction of civilization. For instance, I would encounter patients who had all sorts of fantasies about post-apocalyptic settings such as life after an eco-catastrophe, nuclear war, a massive plague, or a fundamental economic and technological collapse, where, at long last, they would be able to be with the true objects of their desire and their life would finally be meaningful (struggling to survive, to rebuild the world, etc). As I reflected on this phenomenon a bit, I began to notice that these sorts of fantasies populate the social space everywhere. In cinema there is an entire genre of apocalyptic films from both rightwing and leftwing perspectives such as Independence Day, Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Dante's Peak, Volcano, Deep Impact, and many more I cannot remember. In the world of "literature" the Left Behind novels have been a stunning success, selling millions of copies and leading to popular television shows and made for television movies. In news media, of course, we are perpetually inundated with apocalyptic threats from eco-catastrophe, to the bird flu, to the threat of massive meteors hitting the earth or supervolcanos exploding or even a star going supernova and evaporating our atmosphere, to terrorist attacks employing nuclear or bio-weaponry. The Discovery and Science Channel regularly devote shows to these themes.

While I am certainly not dismissing the possibility of these threats, the psychoanalytic approach suggests that we ask how our desire is imbricated with these particular representations or scenerios and enjoins us to analyze how our thought collectively arrives at these visions of the present rather than others. How is it that we are to account for the ubiquity of these scenerios in popular imagination... An omnipresence so great that it even filters down into the most intimate recesses of erotic fantasy as presented in the consulting room?

In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud presents an interesting take on how we're to understand anxiety dreams such as the death of a loved one. There Freud writes that, another group of dreams which may be described as typical are those containing the death of some loved relative-- for instance, of a parent, of a brother or sister, or of a child. Two classes of such dreams must at once be distinguished: those in which the dreamer is unaffected by grief, so that on awakening he is astonished at his lack of feeling, and those in which the dreamer feels deeply pained by the death and may even weep bitterly in his sleep.

Here, perhaps, would be the key to apocalyptic fantasies: They represent clothed or disguised utopian longings for a different order of social relations, such that this alternative order would only become possible were all of society to collapse. That is, could not the omnipresence of apocalyptic fantasies in American culture be read as an indication that somehow we have "given way on our desire" or betrayed our desire at a fundamental social level? That is, these visions simultaneously allow us to satisfy our aggressive animosity towards existing social relations, while imagining an alternative (inevitably we always triumph in these scenerios, even if reduced to fundamentally primative living conditions... a fantasy in itself), while also not directly acknowledging our discontent with the conditions of capital (it is almost always some outside that destroys the system, not direct militant engagement).

As such, these fantasies serve the function of rendering our dissatisfaction tolerable (a dissatisfaction that mostly consists of boredom and a sense of being cheated), while fantasizing about an alternative that might someday come to save us, giving us opportunity to be heroic leaders and people struggling to survive rather than meaningless businessmen, civil servants, teachers, etc. Perhaps the real question with regard to this pessimism, then, is that of how the utopian yearnings underlying these representations and the antagonisms to which they respond might directly be put to work.

Rough Theory blog follows this tack with a slight tangent by looking at Adorno as opposed to Freud. Here the concern is more about the importance of physochological theory to the general project of critical theory but does point out an interesting sub-text to the apocalypse discussion.

For present purposes, since the topic of apocalyptic fantasy started me on this tangent, I will explore only one: Adorno’s proposal for how a critical psychology might complement a critical sociology in making sense of the appeal of social movements that seem oriented specifically to destruction.
Since Larval Subjects’s post provided the immediate spark for these reflections, I’ll briefly draw attention to some elements of that post to get us underway. Larval Subject begins by citing examples of apocalyptic fantasies from a wide range of contexts, and then asks how we should understand this phenomenon.
Larval Subjects thus expresses the hope that apocalyptic fantasies manifest a desire for something other than their explicit content - something more than the desire for destruction and death. I raise this point, not to hold up Freud’s text against LSs appropriation …but because I think it provides a good frame for understanding Adorno’s very different attempt to merge psychoanalytic theory with sociology in the service of critique. If Freud offers two interpretive paths, one of which LS has followed in the hopes that apocalyptic fantasy might signify a non-manifest content - a longing for transcendence - we can understand Adorno’s work as an attempt to reflect seriously on the second path - on the possibility that certain mass movements might genuinely desire to achieve what their fantasies express: destruction and death.

Adorno’s argument is complex - and not necessarily in ways that are productive for theoretical reflection by those not committed to Adorno’s own framework. For present purposes, I won’t attempt to outline Adorno’s interpretation in any comprehensive way, but will instead comment on just a few elements within a single text: Adorno’s “Sociology and Psychology”, published in the New Left Review in two parts, in Nov-Dec, 1967, and Jan-Feb 1968.

Adorno begins this text with a rejection of the concept of objective historical laws, and suggests - as I have suggested above - that this rejection implies the need to supplement a critical sociological theory with a critical psychology. Much of the article then revolves around two arguments:

1. a critique of other attempts to merge sociology and psychology
2. an often scathing critique of Freud and of various psychoanalytic traditions, in the service of an attempt to appropriate Freudian categories in a more historicised and critical form.

Adorno’s arguments are often brilliant and provocative, and I will try to revisit them in appropriate detail in another post. For present purposes, however, I want only to isolate out a couple of points that seem - to me, at least - to have potentially broader relevance for theoretical reflection on the psychological undercurrents of mass movements.(apocalypticism)

What I find particularly interesting and disturbing in this text is the very simple and, once stated, obvious question that motivates Adorno’s analysis:
What might happen, psychologically, to individuals who possess critical sensibilities in circumstances in which those individuals are too frightened or overwhelmed to act?

Adorno unfolds an extraordinarily pessmistic analysis in response to this question, focussing on the strain placed on an ego whose reality testing abilities enable it to discover both the potential for and the isolation and impotence of the individual to bring such a transformation about. Adorno argues - and I won’t elaborate on his analysis here - that much of what Freud took to be innate psychological structure derives, instead, from the violence of socialisation into such a context, from the scars inflicted by the ego on itself when, confronted with its own powerlessness, it responds by repressing conscious awareness of potentials for transformation, and driving emancipatory impulses into the unconscious realm.

Adorno suggests that several consequences follow from this form of socialisation:

1. a brittleness and attenuation of the ego, which renders it easier for the ego itself to be overwhelmed by infantile and irrational impulses; the presence of unusually strong barriers separating the unconscious from other dimensions of psychic life, which has the effect of “freezing” the unconscious in an infantile state and undermining the ability to sublimate infantile desires

2. because on some level the awareness of transformative potentials persists - an unconscious reservoir of rage at the unnecessary sacrifices imposed by an unjust society.

All of these things, Adorno suggests, encourage susceptibility to forms of mass mobilisation that are directed specifically against the realisation of potentials for transformation, and that tap into impulses to destroy others (particularly members of vulnerable minorities whose social exclusion can be misrecognised as unmerited freedom from hated social constraints) as well as desires for self-destruction.
Adorno’s account thus suggests that widespread desires for destruction or self-destruction might be “typical” - particularly in moments when individual powerlessness comes to be experienced as particularly acute.
While fuelled in some sense by an experience of transformative potentials, these destructive desires are not, within Adorno’s framework, masks for utopian longing, but blind rage and pain at sacrifices unjustly imposed - a rage and pain that, can sometimes try to “rationalise” its own sacrifices through the destructive imposition of equivalent sacrifices on others. Rough Theory concludes:

In reality, I’m actually quite critical of this dimension of Adorno’s work. Specifically, Adorno uses this appropriation of psychoanalytic theory, among other things, to account for certain qualitative characteristics of forms of subjectivity that I think can be explained far more easily via sociological analysis. As well, there is a certain element to Adorno’s reworking of Freud that - for all its scathing criticisms - is a bit too literal and loyal… I’m not particularly drawn to the actual contents of his psychological theory - I am, however, drawn to his question –
the question of whether the experience of living in a society that suggests the potential for its own transformation might, under certain historical circumstances, render likely the emergence of abstractly destructive sensibilities. At the same time, I am cautious of elements in LS’s post - of how quickly the interpretation jumps from the claim that manifest fantasies of destruction might have some kind of non-destructive latent content, to the even more contentious claim that the specific latent content might be utopian in character.
More to come......

image - David Maisel

1 comment:

Ashes77 said...

jeex, you are shaming everyone. this is too much.